Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist, lost his bid to overturn an order from his professional regulatory college to complete a social-media coaching program in response to a series of complaints about his online posts.
In a decision released by Ontario’s Divisional Court on Wednesday, Justice Paul Schabas wrote that the College of Psychologists of Ontario “adequately and reasonably” considered Dr. Peterson’s online statements in the context of its mandate to “regulate the profession in the public interest.”
The college’s requirement that Dr. Peterson complete a specified continuing education or remedial program, or SCERP, has “a minimal impact on his right to freedom of expression” and strikes the right legal balance between upholding his rights as well as the professional standards of his regulatory body, Justice Schabas wrote.
Dr. Peterson had asked the court to review the college’s decision, made last November, requiring him to complete the education program, citing his right to free expression and the fact his online comments didn’t pertain to the profession of psychology. Failure to complete the education program could escalate the issue to the college’s disciplinary committee and it’s possible that Dr. Peterson could lose his licence as a result.
Dr. Peterson rose to prominence in 2016, following the release of videos criticizing federal legislation designed to prevent discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression. Since then, he has gained a worldwide following and regularly posts anti-transgender content, climate change denial and criticism of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau online.
The dispute with the regulatory college has moved from a routine conduct investigation into a test case over the use of social media and whether professional organizations should have any say in what members post online.
Dr. Peterson responded to the court decision in a series of posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, suggesting it infringes on free speech and comparing the order to complete the education program to a prosecution. He added that he will make every aspect of the case public.
The college’s decision came after repeated complaints against Dr. Peterson over the course of several years, in which he is alleged to have made online statements that were transphobic, racist, sexist and not in keeping with his professional standards, according to Wednesday’s decision.
After a March, 2020, investigation, the college told Dr. Peterson his online statements could reflect poorly on the profession and harm members of the public and asked him to use a more respectful tone.
But the college launched a new investigation last year after a series of new complaints arrived about Dr. Peterson’s controversial remarks, including disparaging comments about a former client on Joe Rogan’s podcast, derogatory comments about a plus-sized swimsuit model and anti-transgender comments directed at actor Elliot Page.
The college asked Dr. Peterson to voluntarily complete an education program to address the professionalism of his online statements. He declined, saying he had a variety of people, including book editors, family members and colleagues, who could help him navigate social media. The dispute culminated in the college’s order last November that he undertake training.
Wednesday’s decision states that the college’s reasons for making the order are “transparent, intelligible, justifiable and reasonable.” It also ordered Dr. Peterson to pay $25,000 in respondent costs.
The Canadian Constitution Foundation, which acted as an intervenor in the case, expressed disappointment with the outcome in a press release, saying it could have a chilling effect on other professionals, including physicians, lawyers and teachers.
“Professionals should not have to soft pedal their speech for fear that activists will weaponize regulatory bodies so that unpopular speech is penalized, even when there is no connection between that speech and the profession,” the foundation’s litigation director Christine Van Geyn said in a press release.
Kevin Banks, associate dean and faculty director of the Centre for Law in the Contemporary Workplace at Queen’s University’s faculty of law, said that it is well-established for professional bodies to attach limits to speech in order to maintain public confidence in the profession.
“It’s important that the college did not prevent Dr. Peterson from speaking on contentious topics. It simply attached some consequences (social media coaching at his own expense) to speaking publicly in a manner that was degrading or demeaning to persons who he was criticizing, Mr. Banks said in an e-mail.